HARRISBURG Pa. (Reuters) - A high rate of cancer among inmates at a southwestern Pennsylvania prison is linked to a nearby coal ash dump, and the correctional facility should be closed down, according to a report made public on Tuesday.
Eleven prisoners died of cancer from 2010 through 2013, and six others have been diagnosed with cancer at the State Correctional Institution Fayette, said the report, released by the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Pittsburgh, and the Human Rights Coalition, a national prison reform group.
SCI Fayette has a higher inmate death rate than all but two other prisons in the state, both of which have high geriatric populations, it said.
A 12-month investigation found that blowing coal ash was the most likely cause of the inmate cancers as well as other illnesses at the facility.
Inmates quoted in the report described black dust blowing from the dump and settling onto the prison and its grounds.
The report calls for SCI Fayette, which houses 1,986 inmates and has 677 staff, to be shut down. The medium security facility was built for $119 million and opened in 2003. All of the state’s license plates are made there.
Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the residue of burning coal in a power plant. It was used extensively in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s in mine reclamation projects, notably in the effort to control a mine fire under the town of Centralia.
Its carcinogenic components, including lead, arsenic and mercury, were revealed in a 2010 report by a public interest group, Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“There is a strong correlation between confinement at SCI Fayette and the onset of serious health symptoms,” said Bret Grote, an author of the prison report. “There needs to be an independent and comprehensive study of the health of people at the prison and in the surrounding community.”
Officials at the state Department of Corrections are reviewing the report, a spokeswoman said.
“We take the health of our inmates and staff seriously,” said the spokeswoman, Susan McNaughton.
David LaTorre, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said it too would review the report carefully.
“We are aware of some officers from SCI Fayette who are suffering from illness,” he said.
Fly ash from two regional power plants was dumped at the Fayette County site for 60 years, said John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
No one answered the telephone at Matt Canestrale Construction Inc in Elizabeth, which owns the dump site.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Steve Orlofsky